An en primeur to remember

If Bordeaux 2013 had not existed, says Sophie Kevany, critics of the system, and those who believe it will weed out the weakest links, might have been tempted to invent it.

The city of Bordeaux, France
The city of Bordeaux, France

Those who aspire to kill off Bordeaux’s en primeur system, or at least make radical­ changes to it, were this year given every opportunity to point out flaws. These, they say, include premature tasting of the new wine, poor value for end consumers – who traditionally­ bought en primeur as a bargain – and, within the supply chain, unnecessary pressures to sell stock fast.

Quality concerns

En primeur wines are tasted every spring, while still maturing in the barrel about six months after harvest, and they are sold shortly after, two years prior to bottling. No ‘EP’ - as it’s known by some in the trade - campaign is without­ its naysayers, but 2013 took the ­biscuit for negative commentary. 

Bad weather during the growing and harvest seasons sparked concerns among wholesale buyers about the quality of the vintage. Then, despite a letter from organisers, the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, reminding producers­ to maintain ranks and release prices only when tasting week concluded, two well-­respected ­estates let fly. Not only was the timing consi­dered poor for those who had yet to taste, the prices themselves, respectively the same as the previous year for Château Pontet-Canet and €1.00 cheaper for Château Gazin, flatly ignored a Greek chorus of buyers demanding cuts of up to 30% on the 2012 vintage. 

Into this contretemps dropped an article describing the tastings as “sham” and, less than 10 days later, a suggestion from popular UK wine critic Jancis Robinson MW that ­buyers ­forget Bordeaux 2013 EP and ­focus instead on Italy’s Barolo. The net ­result has been something of a stand-off between the negociants – Bordeaux’s merchants who act as the exclusive sales channel between producers and wholesale wine merchants in France and around the world – and those buyers. 

“I have rarely seen such a uniform toeing of the line by buyers, in their refusal to consider buying,” said Bordeaux-based, US-born negociant Jeffrey Davies. “This is one of the most ­difficult campaigns we have had in recent memory. I would say there is a homogenous lack of interest, which is in inverse proportion to the heterogeneous nature of the 2013’s quali­ty and their pricing. One of my major custo­mers visiting this week has said they are only interested tasting bottled wines, not 2013.” 

Other negociants argue the campaign, which has been ruthlessly picked over by journalists and tweeters, has taken on a Bordeaux-bashing element. “There is a lack of objectivity,­ with a clear focus on bad pricing examples, while examples of well-priced wines are almost ignored,” said the managing director of negociants CVBG, Mathieu Chadronnier. Most of that negative sentiment is coming from the UK, Chadronnier said.

Despite the bashing negociants say some of the good-quality, well-priced 2013s - including­ Lynch Bages, Canon, Beychevelle and ­Rauzan- Ségla, plus the first growths released to date, Mouton Rothschild, Lafite and ­Margaux – are selling. Markets currently showing interest­ ­include France, notably supermarkets, ­Switzerland, Germany, the UK and even, for the top brands, Hong Kong and China.  

Overall, however, the campaign will be what the Bordelaise call “a small one”. At negociant house Diva, director Jean-Pierre Rousseau, said he expected his EP sales to be 60% to 70% below norm. Rousseau described the market as “lukewarm” and said more attention should have been paid to calls for lower prices.

A necessary vintage

Taking a longer view of 2013, managing ­director of negociant house Barrière Frères, Laurent Ehrmann, described the vintage as both necessary and convenient. Necessary­ to weed out the Johnny-come-lately ­merchants that profited from easy times with the ­popular 2009 and 2010 vintages, when ­selling ­expensive Bordeaux to brand- and wine-­hungry ­China was as quick and easy as falling off a barrel. 

By contrast, he said, the 2013 vintage is one that must be held for later use - a problem for the many merchants said to have cash flow problems. “Who made the rule that all of this has to sell now? You have to have funds to be in business. You have to have courage, capacity and the means to hold and manage stock,” Ehrmann said. “If not, you should go and do something else. Negociants are not a logistics company for boxes of sardines. It’s very easy when the going is good. And yes, people may go out of business this year. It was a boom and now things have fallen back, but the solid companies, like after the dot com boom, still remain.”  

For Ehrmann, there is no rush to sell the 2013s. Instead, they will serve to fill the pipeline when other slower-selling back vintages such as 2007 and 2011 are sold out. “There are thousands of clients around the world that need to pick up a few cases on a regular basis. In Mexico, Brazil, Russia, Cyprus and elsewhere. I sell to 65 countries. They are picking up five, ten, fifteen cases a day,” he said. With that kind of business rolling, Ehrmann said, 2013, for intelligent traders, will be a vintage to rejoice in over the next five years, and, he added, you can “forget China”.

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